Why Jeb Bush Is No Mitt Romney

Bush’s biggest perceived vulnerabilities also pose one of Democrats’ biggest opposition-research challenges in 2016.

Former Fl. Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Republican National Convention. 
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Dec. 14, 2014, 2:34 p.m.

Demo­crats would love to do to Jeb Bush what Team Obama did to Mitt Rom­ney: force the Re­pub­lic­an to spend his cam­paign de­fend­ing a busi­ness re­cord that he had ori­gin­ally hoped to trum­pet. But in or­der to pull off the track with Bush, Hil­lary Clin­ton and her al­lies have a high­er hill to climb than Obama’s reelec­tion ma­chine ever did.

Ele­ments of Rom­ney’s busi­ness back­ground had been the sub­ject of at­tack ads dat­ing back to his first Sen­ate run in 1994, as Rom­ney’s time at Bain & Com­pany and Bain Cap­it­al pred­ated his days as gov­ernor. But Bush’s in­volve­ment with banks like Leh­man Broth­ers and Barclays is com­par­at­ively re­cent and re­l­at­ively un­ex­plored. Rom­ney also spent years as the pre­sumptive GOP nom­in­ee ahead of 2012, giv­ing Demo­crats more than enough time to find the an­swers to any ques­tions that re­mained. Bush’s re-emer­gence after years of private life is for­cing Demo­crats to play catch-up.

They’re cer­tainly try­ing: Last Monday, Demo­crat­ic re­search shop Amer­ic­an Bridge re­leased a 194-page “Scout­ing Re­port” on the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an field. The re­port gives Bush less fo­cus than oth­er top-tier can­did­ates, with sev­en pages are de­voted to him, com­pared with 13 pages on New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie and 10 on Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er. Brad Wood­house, Amer­ic­an Bridge’s cur­rent ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, said the length of each chapter was par­tially de­term­ined how much re­cent in­form­a­tion was pub­licly avail­able.

Shauna Daly, a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic strategist who spear­headed Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2008 op­pos­i­tion re­search ef­forts and served as a seni­or ad­viser to Amer­ic­an Bridge dur­ing the 2012 elec­tion, out­lined the dif­fi­culty Bush poses for op­pos­i­tion re­search­ers. “The last time I was at Bridge two years ago, the Jeb Bush file hadn’t been up­dated in a really long time,” Daly said, not­ing that private-sec­tor re­cords like those most sought out for Rom­ney, and pos­sibly Bush, are more cum­ber­some to un­earth and sort than re­cords from time spent in pub­lic of­fice.

“I would say that Jeb is a pretty big chal­lenge be­cause all of his stuff is [Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion] fil­ings and I would hope that people had be­gun to re­quest that stuff a while ago, be­cause once you get in­to [Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quests], it takes a long time for those to come around,” Daly said. “With Rom­ney, people had been re­quest­ing that stuff for years. If you don’t have a head start on that it would be dif­fi­cult.”

In 2012, Amer­ic­an Bridge built off pri­or Rom­ney at­tacks and pro­duced a 950-page book for the pro-Obama su­per PAC Pri­or­it­ies USA de­tail­ing “every busi­ness deal of Mitt Rom­ney’s ca­reer,” which Pri­or­it­ies ad­viser Paul Begala said served as the basis for most of the $65 mil­lion worth of ads the group ran against him. Wood­house said a re­port like that can take “many, many months” to put to­geth­er, but said those con­cerned they won’t be up to speed on Bush can rest as­sured. “We’re look­ing at everything,” Wood­house said.

“At least to some people’s mind there was a time that it seemed like Jeb Bush would put his name on any com­pany as long as he got a paycheck,” Wood­house said. “Maybe he should have had someone do due di­li­gence on them, I know we are.”

Bush, in what many are read­ing as a sign of a planned 2016 can­did­acy, said Sat­urday that he would re­lease ap­prox­im­ately 250,000 emails from his time as gov­ernor, but it could still be dif­fi­cult ac­cess­ing oth­er pub­lic re­cords from his time as Flor­ida gov­ernor.

Bar­bara Peterson, the pres­id­ent of the First Amend­ment Found­a­tion, said Flor­ida ac­tu­ally has fairly good pub­lic-re­cords laws com­pared with oth­er states, but there are is­sues when it comes to the cost of ob­tain­ing re­cords and get­ting them in a timely man­ner. “A lot of agen­cies charge for ex­tens­ive use of per­son­nel time, but ‘ex­tens­ive’ is not defined by the law,” Peterson said.

Peterson said one case she’s cur­rently work­ing on serves as an ex­treme ex­ample. A re­port­er wanted four months’ worth of emails from all the deputy sher­iffs in a large Flor­ida county, and was look­ing for six spe­cif­ic words with­in those emails. “The sher­iff’s of­fice said it was go­ing to cost $399,000 and it was go­ing to take them sev­en years to com­ply,” a re­sponse Peterson called “ludicrous,” but not totally un­heard of in Flor­ida or else­where.

Just last week the AP re­por­ted that one re­cords re­quest on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s time at the State De­part­ment has gone un­answered for four years.

Peterson said the Rick Scott ad­min­is­tra­tion is also no­tori­ously slug­g­lish in re­spond­ing to re­quests, and can some­times take up to six months to in­form people that the re­cords they seek aren’t avail­able. His team has also been caught de­fy­ing re­cords re­quests, like when they not only de­leted but laser-scrubbed doc­u­ments from his first trans­ition that were sup­posed to be archived. “I can’t tell you how many times the Scott ad­min­is­tra­tion has said ‘Oops,’ ” Peterson said.

Be­cause so many po­ten­tial can­did­ates are re­runs of 2012 or were re­cently up for reelec­tion, Bridge already has thor­ough and up-to-date files on most in­cluded in last week’s re­port. Oth­ers have been the sub­jects of con­tro­ver­sies that gen­er­ated a lot doc­u­ment­a­tion of their time in of­fice, in­clud­ing Christie’s Bridgeg­ate and the John Doe in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to Walk­er’s vari­ous cam­paigns, which have pro­duced hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of pages of doc­u­ments through which to dig.

Part of the util­ity gained in re­leas­ing a re­port like Bridge’s early is to “get that con­ver­sa­tion go­ing,” as Wood­house said, and prod news or­gan­iz­a­tions to do some of the heavy lift­ing to fill in the blanks, of­fer­ing them more news clips from which to later cite. One Bloomberg story pub­lished last Thursday de­scribed a hand­ful of re­cent SEC fil­ings de­tail­ing Bush’s role in a new off­shore private equity fund. The story’s tagline de­scribed Bush as a guy “with lots of deals for the press to un­tangle.”

“Kick-start­ing that con­ver­sa­tion now is a big help be­cause we’re in the busi­ness of col­lec­tion,” Wood­house said, and ended his sum­ma­tion of the group’s ef­forts on a con­fid­ent note: “We will have the goods on who­ever the nom­in­ee is, just like Amer­ic­an Bridge did with Mitt Rom­ney.”

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